Elizabeth Balgobin: Trustees have a duty to get to grips with social media

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

Recently I chaired a panel session at People Power, a campaigning and activism conference, entitled "Do charities still speak truth to power?" Since then I have been wondering whose "truth" it referred to, where the power lies and whether we, as board members, ever explicitly have that conversation.

In this age of social media and online petitions rather than the ballot box, should we give up trying to influence parliamentarians and focus on the influence we might exert on Jo(e) Public? Tweets force you to be succinct in conveying your message and you find out fairly quickly whether others agree with you. Is the current model of talking to people face to face outdated and blocking real change?

I struggle with some of this new world stuff. How as trustees do we moderate what goes out in our name when it goes out in 140 characters once a day or every half hour? Your electronic footprint hangs around forever. It doesn't have the nuance of the face-to-face meeting or a telephone call. I feel forced into reacting rather than planning the message. How do we get consistency and how do we deal with any fallout?

Close enough to our causes?

The conference has left me wondering about the nature of campaigning and whether we, the trustees, are close enough to our causes. Not every cause lends itself to chaining yourself to the railings and not every trustee is equipped to be out there hollering and leading a march down Whitehall. A balance of skills, expertise, knowledge and personalities makes for a strong team, a strong board and a strong organisation.

Some of the old-fashioned social networking that happens face to face and through the development of relationships is still needed. Some of the new social networking in which you don't know any of the people IRL (in real life!), but who are connected elsewhere in the world, is now vital. When communicating your message or your campaign, you are competing in a really busy marketplace.

Trustees need to get with it. I don't tweet or blog - I'm good with people face to face and when I am on a stage. But that limits the reach of a national organisation such as ours. As chair of Voice4Change England, I am committed to getting out to all of the regions before the summer. The number of organisations and people that I speak to will be limited to those that can give up the time to come along and to those that can fit in the room. It's time-consuming for me and costly for us as an organisation. Wouldn't it be better if I just put myself online and connected to our members virtually?

Well, apart from the fact that I look terrible on camera, the connection is largely one way. The value of going out and about is being able to interact with people, their thoughts, their feelings and their stories, and the connection you feel when you see their eyes and their body language, and hear the passion in their voices as they tell their stories. It might be fleeting and one-off, but I hope it is memorable.

The communities that emerge online are real. You do get to know online personalities and feel an investment in their communication, but that is about the personal connection, as in a face-to-face meeting.

How do you build that connection when you are tweeting about a cause? The reality is that you trust one person to become the virtual voice of the organisation - and that can be dangerous.

Clear guidance

My risk register is getting more complex but, as trustees, the message and the channels used are our responsibility. It is vital to have clear guidance about what we want said and how we want it said. It's not realistic to expect the board to come together to decide on every response to every situation, so you do have to trust the people around you. You have to trust the strength of your processes and boundaries and believe they will hold when things get immediate, controversial or reactionary.

As trustees we have a duty to develop our skills and knowledge. I will add new social media to my skillset. I will ask each board member to commit to blogging or tweeting at least once this year. We will make it personal and get back to the new front line of campaigning.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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